Stamp Artists Joel Lipman and Rafael Jesus Gonzales
essay by Karl Young
You can find people in the mail art network arguing that "stamp art" must be carefully distinguished from "envelope art," that "stamp art" needs to be divided into postal and rubber stamp genres, and so on through intricacies of concept that make the labyrinths of the postal system itself seem simple. Some of the ramifications of these distinctions can be seen clearly enough in the work of David Cole who made extensive use of all formats and techniques. Here, I'm simply going to say a few words about the use of rubber stamps - on envelopes and off.
In looking at rubber stamps from the point of view of a visual poet, I'm stepping outside the non-critical position of the more stringent requirements of mail art. Both Lipman and Gonzales are masters, and both share some similar themes. A difference between them is that I've only had contact with Gonzales through the mail art network, receiving work as mail art pure and simple. Lipman and I come from the same home town. Both of us first encountered lead type and platin presses in the same school print shop. His first job was writing for his step father's radio station, and I probably heard some of the ad copy he wrote via radio. Since he's three years older than I, however, we never met while going to school and our first contact came through mail art made more than 20 years after we left our home town. This makes an important point about mail art. It can introduce you to people in far away places, but it can also bring you into contact with people who at one time lived virtually next door - you might even meet a current neighbor through the network. Since making contact with Lipman, I've been able to see other work, discuss his methods, and publish some of his visual poetry. Thus I have a much better idea of how and why he does things, while Gonzales remains a stranger whose mail I've welcomed, but with whom I've never spoken or communicated with on a larger scale than the exchange of work through the mail.
Joel Lipman's approach to rubber stamp techniques could be seen as luddic or masterful. At first glance, it may seem that he simply assaults basic icons and images. This he certainly does. One of his main works is a series titled Jesse Helmes' Body. This may be one of the most cutting satires produced by a poet writing in English since Jonathan Swift. As I write this, Helmes is preparing to retire from a seat in the U.S. senate he has held for decades, and memory of him will probably fade quickly as he gets replaced by some other bigot. Throughout his career Helmes has based his positions on racial and social prejudices. Two of his major campaigns have been for censorship in the arts and the maintaining and strengthening of the embargo on Cuba, both crucial issues for Lipman, as they are in one way or another for most U.S. artists. As a teenager, Lipman worked in a salvage yard, where one of his tasks was sorting and bailing paper. In this capacity, covers and binding boards had to be separated from text paper for resale. This enhanced his sense of the nature of materials, and gave him the opportunity to salvage some books for his own use. Medical and anatomy books proved interesting treasures discovered at this job and retrieved from used book stores.
He made good use of them in opposition to Helmes' hatred of the human body. The pages of anatomy books Lipman uses show the beauty of human forms by images that seem to peal away layers of tissue, in a process that looks like dissection. You could read such images as a dissection of Helmes, or you could see it as an argument for the robustness of the body in opposition to the hatred of it in Helmes' thinking. Helmes hatred of sexuality, of gay people, of non-whites, and his attempt at an assault on the people of Cuba through denial of food, medicine, agrircultural and industrial supplies comes into clear focus in the common denominators of human organisms, with their grand complexity, durability, and the way that delicacy and strength reinforce each other. Helmes' supporters are the people who seek to destroy bodies while being too squeamish to look at them. Jesse Helmes' Body has attracted more attention than anything else of Lipman's by virtue of its shock value. Unfortunately, virtually all that has been reproduced in color has appeared at my web site. A closer look at the work revels not only Lipman's celebration of the body opposed to repression, but his supreme craftsmanship. The main alterations made to the images from anatomy books in this series, as well as the pages from dictionaries, catalogues, illustrated stories and novels, come from the use of rubber stamp texts.
Lipman developed his skills with stamps over a long period of time and a lot of practice in creating work to send through the mail art network. His skill in inking can't be beat. He can vary the density of ink from a dry, light impression to extremely juicy saturations. With any impressions along this spectrum, he can also vary the degree of opacity of the ink so that it can be completely opaque even in the lighter impression ranges, or transparent in those where the ink is particularly heavy. He achieves some effects by stamping over previous impressions at different stages of the drying process. He can create extremely sharp edges with rubber stamps, and figure out ways to modulate both rubber stamp and metal letters into something very close to the freedom and gracefulness of calligraphy. Lipman's use of color stands up well when compared to any 20th century work you can find in galleries and museums. Some of this comes from his sense of harmony and discord, and his ability to work them with or against each other. Though this parallels the use of color in painting, Lipman also explores color through properties peculiar to rubber stamps and inks. Through long practice, he knows precisely how to get the richest purples, the most biting oranges, and the most aqueous blues by charging the stamp from multiple ink pads, each containing a different color ink. If you can see the originals, you can get a sense of how well he understands the nature of paper surfaces, including their various degrees of absorbency and the way they age. In talking to him, you can get a sense of how important materials are to him, and the emphasis he places on such activities as taking his students to canvas shops, used book stores, paper converters, etc. Although at first glance a page from Jesse Helmes' Body may resemble a crude cartoon, I don't know anybody, including traditional platen press printers, who understands and makes better use of their tools. If this seems hyperbole, take a cheap stamp set and try to get anything like the kinds of lettering Lipman achieves. At the same time, anyone who gets past the raw shock of the imagery will find a mythology akin to that of William Blake.
Such works as Revisioning Webster and Jesse Helmes' Body are visual poetry, even though copies have circulated through the mail art network. Lipman produced what he calls poeMvelopes specifically for use as mail art. If you could assemble all these envelopes in chronological order, you might be able to chart the development of his stamping abilities. The best show the same qualities as the visual poems. Lipman generally works text in highly defined rows or clusters whether on envelopes or in visual poems.
Click here to go to Joel Lipman Survey
Rafael Jesus Gonzales's envelopes and post cards tend to work stamps and hand drawing in a different direction. Initially the image plane comes across as something like an oriental rug - an intricate set of patterns within patterns, forming, on first glance, what seems like a gently modulated shimmer. Gonzales usually inks his stamps lightly, and seems to choose both letter and image stamps in part for the delicacy of their lines. He draws auxiliary forms around the stamped areas with thin tipped colored pens. The lines remain sharp, but through their densities and relations to the stamped images they initially come across as gently modulated textures. A basic Gonzales envelope or card may contain multiple impressions of a globe with a banner reading "peace" across it, repeated in such a way as to create a gently rhythmic pattern. Other stamps carrying figures from comic strips, images of birds, plants, animals, pop and political icons can form clusters of their own or companions or supports for the repeated motif. At times repeated phrases used in demonstrations take on something of the character of purely graphic icons, suggesting signs in undulating crowds. Hand drawn lines tend to take off from the stamps. Gonzales may, for instance, draw lines of rain coming from a cloud or ripples following a boat. The address may issue as a balloon from the mouth of an icon or as a banner following an airplane. When he uses large bodied letter stamps, the light inking leaves a mottled pattern in harmony with the traceries of other stamps and the lines drawn in pen. The color of the paper, whether white or beige, takes part in creating the tone of the work. The envelopes or cards have only come to me with affixed postage stamps when they have included large letter or dense image stamps so that the affixed stamp doesn't stand alone or stand out. In the most delicate and even work, the post mark with the cost of postage has come from a post office meter - repeating the same kind of thin lines Gonzales uses in his own stamps and drawings.
This summarizes envelopes Gonzales has sent me and those I've seen in shows curated by other people. The letter stamps on the envelopes include brief summaries of Gonzales's concerns, extending through the range of Latin American and minority affairs. The contents of the envelopes as likely as not include lexical poems, performance scores and reports, newspaper articles and personal comments. Clearly, performance art and demonstrations are essential to him. How the envelopes relate stylistically to work in other areas becomes difficult to say, since all I know about them is the descriptions Gonzales includes. Certainly such enclosures as newspaper articles carry some of the same textures as the stamps on the outside of the envelopes. Notes on politically engaged performances and demonstrations affirm that the brief texts on the envelopes are something to take seriously, and that he follows his own advice outside the mail art network. To me, Gonzales's stamped envelopes suggest a consummate form of visual integration. Perhaps that states both subtly and emphatically a well coordinated confluence of mail art and other activities.
Some commentators identify distinct mail art styles. Others claim that mail art simply picked up variants on Fluxus, conceptual art, performance art, and visual poetry. Both arguments seem partisan, or written from a limited point of vantage. These movements and tendencies grew up together and acted interdependently. Perhaps in the several varieties of stamp art we can see forms and styles specifically originating in mail art. We can't know to what extent visual poetry would have used rubber stamps had there been no mail art network. But it seems unlikely that rubber stamp art could have evolved into the sophistication of its masters without stimulus from visual poetry and situations that encouraged interchange and required extensive practice. Whatever the case, rubber stamp art remains basic to mail art as it has been practiced so far, and perhaps it will remain so even if mail art moves itself onto the web or other media.